Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Colleges

Michigan Wolverines have options at quarterback in Outback Bowl

TAMPA

The bloomin' irony of this Outback Bowl is drenched in maize, blue and mystery: The most glaring quarterback conundrum in this game exists on the sideline opposite South Carolina's Steve Spurrier.

As sure as the ball drops in Times Square, Spurrier will use both Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson in Tuesday's game. What remains shrouded in cryptic quotes and vague clues is what will unfold when the Michigan Wolverines break their initial huddle.

Specifically, what's the deal with Denard Robinson? And is his right elbow, injured in late October, functional enough for forward passing?

"He can do about anything," coach Brady Hoke said.

That's about as extensive as Hoke will get regarding his plans behind center. Offensive coordinator Al Borges isn't much more forthcoming.

"He's going to have a variety of roles, that's all I'm going to say," Borges said.

Maybe Robinson, a Deerfield Beach native and the greatest running quarterback in Wolverines history, adds a garnish to his glowing college career by starting his final game.

Or junior Devin Gardner, highly efficient as Robinson's replacement the past four contests, remains the primary signal-caller while Robinson lines up at tailback, receiver, wildcat quarterback and return specialist.

Or a combination of both.

"Our defensive coaches feel like we've got to be prepared for both of 'em," Spurrier said.

"Sometimes you never know who's coming out and who's going to be behind the center," said Robinson, who has been throwing in practice lately but hasn't thrown in a game in two months. "So that's always fun to hear and fun to do."

With no one talking at length about the immediate future, one must revert to recent history to speculate on what could transpire Tuesday.

A rangy QB-turned-receiver-turned-QB, the 6-foot-4 Gardner was summoned after Robinson sustained nerve damage to his throwing elbow — and sophomore Russell Bellomy flopped in relief — in a two-TD loss at Nebraska on Oct. 27.

In the ensuing four contests (three wins), he has completed 63 percent of his passes (57-for-90) for 1,005 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. A sack-infested loss at Ohio State notwithstanding, he also has brandished some mobility.

"You know, the more you play the better you understand, and he's just got a better feel, a little more body learning," Borges said. "Less sitting in the meeting and hearing me say it and actually doing it makes a heck of a difference."

But for all of Gardner's progress, Hoke reiterated Saturday that this game is huge for his seniors. And what greater final flourish could Robinson — a lifelong Buccaneers fan — conjure than one last triumphant start at Raymond James Stadium, of all places?

He started at quarterback against Ohio State but didn't attempt a pass. He now insists he can throw well enough to win, and he'll likely be the most dangerous running threat on the field Tuesday.

In two games since returning, he has run for 220 yards. He needs 86 to eclipse former West Virginia star Pat White's NCAA career QB record of 4,480.

"It's another headache for the defense," Gamecocks linebacker Shaq Wilson said.

"When you have a guy as dynamic as Denard with his speed and throwing ability, everything, you can't not have him on the field," Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "So he'll be all over the place on Jan. 1."

Does that include quarterback? If so, for how long? Will he give more handoffs than he gets?

"We'll see," Borges said.

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